The island state of Tasmania, which is part of Australia


Eucalyptus forests, woodlands, coastal scrubland, and agricultural areas.

What’s in a name?

The Tasmanian devil is NOT just a Looney Tunes cartoon character! It is a most unusual mammal, found only on the island state of Tasmania, a part of Australia. It is also a marsupial, related to koalas and kangaroos. Why the “fiery” name and reputation for an animal the size of a small dog? Devils are black in color and are said to have fierce tempers! Their oversize head, neck, and jaws are well suited to crushing bones. They make eerie growls while searching for food at night. And when a group of devils feeds together at a carcass, harsh screeching and spine-chilling screams can be heard.

A devil’s day

During the day, Tasmanian devils find shelter under stones, in caves, bushes, old wombat burrows, or hollow logs. With their stocky body and large head, devils look slow and awkward in their movements as they amble along, but they are the top carnivores in Tasmania. Tasmanian devils maintain home ranges in the wild, which vary with the availability of food.

Tasmanian devils have been described as the vacuum cleaners of the forest, as they mainly eat animals that have already died.
Would you recognize a quoll, numbat, little red antechinus, fat-tailed dunnart, mulgara, dibbler, kowari, or a wambenger if you saw one? These are all animals that are related to the Tasmanian devil.
The Tasmanian wolf, or tiger, also called a thylacine "Thylacinus cynocephalus," was the largest recent marsupial carnivore, but it was hunted to extinction in Tasmania by the 1930s (the last known animal died in the Hobart Zoo in 1936).
The Tasmanian devil is the world’s largest carnivorous marsupial.
Tasmanian devil babies are called imps.
The Tasmanian devil’s genus name, “Sarcophilus,” means meat-loving from the Greek “sarx” or “sarkos” for flesh and “philos” for beloved, dear, loving.
Surveyor and naturalist George Harris first described Tasmanian devils in science journals in 1808. The species’ genus name is harrisii.
The Tasmanian devil is also called the Australian hyena for its nosy scavenging habits and its powerful bone-crushing teeth.

The San Diego Zoo received its first Tasmanian devils in 1955. The female had four babies in her pouch at the time of her arrival. Three more devils arrived in 1962, and in 1971 we celebrated the births of the first devils born at our zoo.

Our newest Tasmanian devils moved into the Zoo’s Australian Outback in October 2013. The four came from the Taronga Western Plains Zoo in Australia, brought here to increase awareness of the species and to inspire support for Tasmanian devil conservation. The devils’ exhibit area has an enclosure for each animal with extra plant matter for the devils to hide in, extra mulch to dig around in, and a tucked-away den to rest in. Read a blog post about their arrival!

The San Diego Zoo is one of only a few zoos in the United States with Tasmanian devils, making these newest additions extremely significant.

Once found throughout Australia, Tasmanian devils slowly lost ground to the introduced dingo. But they did well on Australia’s island state of Tasmania, where there were no dingoes. When European settlers came to Tasmania in the late 18th century, they considered Tasmanian devils and Tasmanian tigers to be nuisances and pests, because the native animals hunted the settlers’ sheep and chickens. By the 1830s, bounties were placed on the devils and tigers until they neared extinction by the turn of the century. In fact, the Tasmanian tiger became extinct in 1936. Devils gained legal protection in 1941, giving the population a chance to gradually increase.

Sometimes residents of Tasmania still think of devils as pests, but this is because their numbers increase each summer when the young leave their mother to live on their own. However, only about 40 percent of these survive the first few months because of competition for food, so the dramatic increase in number happens only once a year. Most farmers now appreciate devils for their ability to keep down rodent populations, which eat crops.

However, devils face a new challenge: disease. Devil facial tumor disease, a rare, contagious cancer found only in devils, has been killing adult devils in recent years. Detected in 1996, the disease is transmitted from one animal to another through biting, a common behavior among devils when mating and feeding. It kills all infected devils within 6 to 12 months, and there is no known cure or vaccine.

San Diego Zoo Global is a proud partner of the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program based in Tasmania. The program collaborates with research institutes and zoos around the world to save the endangered Tasmanian devil. A disease-free population was recently established on Tasmania’s Maria Island, and we are sponsoring an Australian postdoctoral research fellow to monitor them in their new home. For more information on the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program, go to www.tassiedevil.com.au.

In spite of its early bad reputation, it’s clear that the Tasmanian devil has made its mark on the island. It was even chosen as the symbol of the Tasmanian National Parks and Wildlife Service.

You can help us bring Tasmanian devils back from the brink by supporting the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy. Together we can save and protect wildlife around the globe.